R U Lovin’ Sarah’s Alaska?
From governor to TV star.
Nov 29, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 11 • By MATT LABASH
Just how Sarah is Sarah Palin’s Alaska, her new hit reality show on the TLC network? It’s soooo flippin’ Sarah, as Sarah would say. And it’s soooo Alaska, which Palin pronounces “A-LASK-ahhhh.” She repeats this on the show over and over again, as though we might forget where she’s from otherwise. She says it in that chirpy honk that, to her legions of fans, represents the music of Mom, apple pie, and flyover country. To her legions of enemies, it is the sound of gum smacking and syntax breaking. As Palin intones in the show’s opening, “A-LASK-ahhhh—I love this state like I love my family.” Except that she didn’t give her family up after governing it for two-and-a-half years, so that she could get a Fox News contract, and make 100 grand per speech, and write two books in a year, and drag her entire family onto a tacky reality show.
But see, that’s a media meme, used by the kind of annoying people who use words like “meme.” It’s a cheap shot that’s symptomatic of the shoddy cynicism that suffuses the Beltway elites and does not embody the spirit of Alaska, or the spirit of Sarah. Because what the “lamestream meee-deee-uhhh” (as Sarah calls them so often that she’s abbreviated it on her Twitter feed to “LSM”) doesn’t get is that when you love somebody, even if that somebody is the state of Alaska, you set them free. Sting sang that. He’s a really smart guy, even though he’s not from Alaska. So Palin will probably end up tweeting him, just like she perpetually retweets the wisdom of her other intellectual influences like the Constitution, Tito the Builder, and Ronald Reagan, who said, “There r no easy answers, but there r simple answers.” Except that the Great Communicator couldn’t communicate through Twitter, so that unlike Sarah, he actually had to use “are.” (Thank God those days r over.)
But back to Alaska, since that’s what this is about. It’s hard to tell sometimes where Sarah ends and Alaska begins. The Last Frontier of Alaska is as wild and untamed as Sarah Palin’s ambitions. So it makes sense that Sarah loves Alaska, because loving Alaska is like loving herself. And that’s what Sarah Palin’s Alaska is really about: self-love.
It’s also about reality, though Palin rejects the reality-show label, considering it more of a travelogue/love letter to Alaska. And she’s correct that it bucks many reality-show conventions. Though I’ve only screened two of the eight episodes, there are, sadly, no hot tub make-out sessions. There are no drunken fistfights. Husband Todd does not walk around in the requisite Ed Hardy T-shirt, and no back tattoos are evident.
And though the show is produced by Survivor’s Mark Burnett, giving it a slick upmarket feel, little 9-year-old Piper is not voted off the island, though perhaps she should be for double-dipping a beater in a bowl after licking cupcake batter from it. She also precociously calls her mother “Sarah” when trying to get her attention—no easy feat, as Piper relates, since Mom is constantly on her BlackBerry, issuing Facebook and Twitter edicts, lamestream-media beat-downs, and editorial reprimands such as, “Press: why use this Bachmann pic in LEADERSHIP story? Ur 2 transparent.” (While many suspect Palin wants to be president of the United States, she writes as though she just wants to be president of Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center.)
On the other hand, her show is very similar to other reality-television fare, in that there are plenty of artificially constructed moments. The eldest Palin daughter—Dancing with the Stars contestant Bristol—is taken to a shooting range so that Sarah can “remind Bristol what it’s like to pull the trigger.” But it’s fairly obvious when Bristol asks if the recoil is going to hurt and mistakes a clay pigeon for a mosquito that the reason she needs “reminding” is because she’s rarely if ever pulled a trigger at all. Likewise, there are gobs of forced dialogue in order to set up Palin’s bumper-sticker lines (she tells Bristol, with the -subtlety of a skywriter, “Don’t retreat, just reload”). She also repeatedly makes unlikely pronouncements, such as that Denali National Park is 9,400 square miles while New Hampshire is only 9,200 square miles, sounding less like Sarah Barracuda than Sarah Wikipedia.
A future show will feature a guest appearance/camping expedition with TLC reality-show cousin Kate Gosselin, star of Kate Plus Eight and the National Enquirer, whose claim to fame is her fertility, her bitch-on-wheels temper, and a spectacularly ugly divorce. So one could see how Karl Rove, one of several conservative, non-lamestream media Palin critics who’ve reared their heads of late, has a point when suggesting that the American people might expect “a certain level of gravitas” in someone who’s considering running for president, and that starring in your own reality show might not be the ticket.
After all, Sarah Palin’s Alaska shares the network’s schedule with shows like Ton of Love (“go inside the lives of three morbidly obese couples”) and The Man With Half a Body (“meet . . . Kenny whose body ends at his waist and who walks on his hands”). Would John Adams feel comfortable exhibiting his children next to Toddlers and Tiaras, which follows families on their quest for “sparkly crowns, big titles, and lots of cash”? Would Abe Lincoln look diminished if he shared a marquee with I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant? Would William Jefferson Clinton feel at home next to Sister Wives, which explores “the complex daily life of a polygamist family”?
Okay, bad example on that last one. But Rove’s point is taken, and Palin might do well to listen, since her negatives, in poll after poll, are higher than most other politicians’, and since, as the Daily Caller’s Jon Ward just reported after speaking to nearly two dozen key Tea Party activists who universally adore her, even her own supporters have reservations about her becoming president.
Still, the show isn’t about “gravitas,” an elitist lamestreamer word, much like “meme.” Rather, it’s about freedom. Because as Sarah says in the show, she’d rather be free than in some “stuffy old political office.” Part of her appeal is that she has always been a Real Person, not some jive politician. And Real People detest politics, which she proved by barnstorming the country for months, endorsing 64 different politicians in front of Real People. Besides, she just left political office, why would she want to sit in some different stuffy ol’ political office? Unless it was the Oval Office. I think even she’d have to admit that that would be pretty flippin’ cool.
Gravitas, it’s safe to say, is the enemy of freedom. And freedom is about motion—being in it, staying in it. On the show, this involves seein’, and doin’, and experiencin’ things that don’t require a “g” on the end of them, such as shootin’, and rock climbin’, and snow machinin’, and clubbin’ halibut over the head (“let me see the club, you look crazy,” says Bristol to her mom when they do the deed on a commercial fishing boat) and media-critiquin’ and BlackBerryin’, which Palin gets caught doing even in the midst of wilderness adventures.
The premiere episode’s big set piece involves a salmon fishing expedition in which the Palins pack into a boat, looking like tourists in bulky life-jackets while holding their spinning rods (any serious recreational fisherman would carry a fly rod, though that might be my fishing elitism talking). Just as wherever there are cameras, there are Palins—in addition to her Dancing with the Stars chores, Bristol just cut an abstinence/safe-sex public service announcement with renowned meathead The Situation, from MTV’s Jersey Shore—wherever there are salmon, bears will be found. As two bears fight some 30 yards away from the Palins’ boat, it’s a nice break for Palin, so that she can shoehorn as many “Mama Grizzly” references into the conversation as possible while oohing and ahhing at the bears, thus helpfully reminding us of the symbolism.
When the Palins return home by float plane (all but Todd get skunked in a river so thick with salmon you could practically have walked over them), they are disturbed by the sight of Joe McGinniss, the invasive author who decided to report out his biography of Palin by renting the house next to them for the summer. Sarah says that her husband and his buddies built a 14-foot-privacy fence, much like we “need to do to secure our nation’s border.”
Other than a few forced goofball throwaways, such as the one above, the show rarely becomes overtly political. But with the introduction of McGinniss, who rightly serves as the heavy, one is reminded of Palin’s singular talent as a politician. It is why, in addition to her personal magnetism and charisma and ability to rile up often inchoate populist ire, she appeals to such a large swath of conservatives. And the reason is that no matter how annoying Palin is—no matter how jingoistic, no matter how shameless a headline-hunter, no matter how likely to sound like a 15-year-old Twitter-head (“SWEET diversion from politics! Dancing W/The Stars party in r livingroom tonight w/friends who r lovin’ this change of pace 4 Sweet Bristol!”)—she still manages to elicit often irrational hatred from politically motivated enemies who are even more annoying than she is.
Only the hardest of hard-bitten cynics wouldn’t feel sympathy for Palin when Andrew Sullivan advances conspiracy theories that she is not the biological mother of Trig. Or when a noxious gasbag like Joy Behar expresses surprise that Palin’s book is a success since most of her base “doesn’t even read.” Or when a creepy finger-sniffer like McGinniss moves into a house next door to play Peeping Tom into her family sanctum, then publicly complains that he wants to be edited out of her show.
As Palin spies McGinniss next door upon the family’s return, she mutters that their activities are none of “his flippin’ business,” frets whether he’s taking pictures, mischievously conspires with Piper as to whether the girl should wave, and finally high-fives her daughter, congratulating Piper that they had had a good day on the water while he was “stuck inside writing an ugly book.” It’s a sweet little moment. But one that rings totally false.
For while Palin’s love and affection for her children are obvious, the reality-show cameras to which she’s sounding off about the invasion of privacy would seem to be more of a privacy invasion than anything McGinniss could concoct. Whatever her motivations are in doing such a thing—and only she knows them—the most judged woman in the world has now given America a ringside seat to judge the inner workings of her family as well. And judge they do.
After seeing a preview, I watched the season-opener again when the show premiered last Sunday. This time, while clocking real-time reaction to it on Twitter—the forum that has amplified Palin’s voice exponentially as she wages a one-woman guerrilla media campaign that seems to commandeer every other news cycle.
The show broke TLC ratings records, pulling in 5 million viewers. A good many of those are doubtless Palin’s devoted fans. But Twitter reaction was running about 10-to-1 against her, as the online hyenas circled, then savaged Palin and her family. They reamed 9-year-old Piper for disturbing wildlife with “racist anti-bear calls.” They mocked Willow when a boy snuck upstairs as Palin busied herself on her BlackBerry. They came up with baby names for any forthcoming Palin children: Snausages, Musket, Hugh Betcha, Pander, and Mooseknuckle.
Does any of this matter to Palin? Probably not. She must be used to it by now. But her family is not acclimating so seamlessly to their new reality-television roles. Her daughters, just a few days ago, got in a widely reported Facebook scrape, with Willow electing to defend the family honor when the show was trashed by an old classmate for “failing so hard.” Willow, in turn, invited him to “stfu, Your [sic] such a faggot.” Willow has a lot of growing up to do. Literally—she’s only 16, and what 16-year-old would want those growing pains played out in public? Yet as Palin recently tweeted, citing Bristol’s response when asked if she was ready to face the pressure-cooker of Dancing with the Stars, “No matter [what] I do, they’re going to criticize, so I might as well DANCE!”
On Sarah Palin’s Alaska, shortly after she does a shot with Bill O’Reilly from the television studio that she’s had built into her house, Palin confides to the reality-show camera, in a rare moment of genuine self-reflection, “You know, having every word, every action scrutinized and in some cases mocked, I can handle it, you know. I kind of have asked for it, right?”
One could make a case.
But this doesn’t mean Palin won’t continue to express her thoughts. In fact, when surveying the two-year output of her books and tweetings and Facebook updates and speeches and television spots and reality-show utterances, where every minute issue of the day is remarked upon, every slight noticed, every petty retribution repaid, it’s hard to imagine she still has any thoughts that remain unexpressed.
But that’s what going rogue is all about. Letting it fly. Following your gut. Which has made Sarah Palin wealthy, and intensely discussed, and now has secured her a spot in the Reality TV Star pantheon. And good for Palin if she’s happy following her gut.
Though there’s no compelling reason to suggest the rest of us should tag along behind.
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.
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